The Forensic Science Service (FSS) is a Government-owned company. It provides services to police forces across England and Wales, together with other agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service, British Transport Police and HM Revenue & Customs. Since the early 1990s, the FSS has gradually progressed from a public to a commercial organisation, and a market has developed in forensic services. The FSS competes with private forensic science providers and held around 60% market share in December 2010.
On 14 December 2010 the Government announced its intention to "support the wind-down of FSS, transferring or selling off as much of its operations as possible" by March 2012. The FSS's operating losses and the projected shrinking forensics market were cited, and during our inquiry we were also informed about legal constraints surrounding the decision. Overall, we consider that the Government, in making its decision, did not give enough consideration to the impact on forensic science research and development (R&D), the capacity of private providers to absorb the FSS's 60% market share and the wider implications for the criminal justice system. These considerations appear to have been overlooked in favour of the financial bottom line. In addition, we consider that the Home Office's Chief Scientific Adviser's satisfaction with his exclusion from the decision-making process and his failure to challenge the decision to be unacceptable.
The FSS's dire financial position appears to have arisen from a complex combination of factors, principally the shrinking forensics market, driven by increasing police in-sourcing of forensic science services, and a forensic procurement framework that has driven down prices and does not adequately recognise the value of complex forensic services. The stabilisation of the forensics market is therefore now of crucial importance for all forensic science providers external to the police. We recommend that the Government introduce measures to ensure that the police do not further in-source forensic science services that are already available from external providers through the National Forensic Framework Agreement (NFFA). The current and previous Governments' ambitions for a truly competitive market have been undermined by the police customer increasingly becoming the competitor.
It is an issue of great concern that many police laboratories are not accredited to the same quality standards as the FSS and private sector providers offering services through the NFFA. We are of the view that the transfer of work from the FSS to a non-accredited police or private laboratory would be highly undesirable, as it would pose significant and unacceptable risks to criminal justice. The role of the Forensic Science Regulator is vital and we urge the Government to bring forward proposals to provide him with statutory powers to enforce compliance with quality standards.
The FSS manages a large archive of case files, papers and retained materials. These are an important resource for the criminal justice system and we recommend that the archives, and the intellectual capability supporting them, remain as a single, accessible resource.
Forensic science R&D in the UK is not healthy, and we call on the Home Office and Research Councils to develop a new national research budget for forensic science.
While we consider that there could be merit in retaining the FSS as a public agency focusing on R&D, training, quality standards and the maintenance of forensic archives, we are not convinced that the separation of research and service provision would be the ideal outcome for the FSS.
Winding down the FSS will be a complex task and we are not confident that an orderly transition can be achieved by the extremely challenging deadline of March 2012. We recommend that the deadline should be extended by at least six months to enable the Government to consult on and determine a wider strategy for forensic science. The FSS should be supported during this period and the transition process must be carefully monitored to ensure that it does not further contribute to market instability or lead to a diminution of service to the criminal justice system. The primary consideration throughout must be the health of the criminal justice system.